When I finished Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, I felt compelled to write a short post about the novels because I owed it to them. They were fantastic, and fantastic should be rewarded with words. Well, I recently read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and just like Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, I feel I owe Tolkien some words of appreciation and applause.
It’s kind of sad really: my favorite genre of books is fantasy, but it wasn’t until 2013 that I picked up and worked my way through the most defining works of fantasy since King Arthur was vogue (and I’ve even read some of those!). I had a Literature professor once baulk in surprise and then say, “How the fuck have you not read The Lord of the Rings?” I could only shrug and then laugh, because she rarely swore.
The truth is, I tried to read The Lord of the Rings quite some time ago. I saw the movie adaptation when it first came out in 2001 and I wanted to know how it ended. So a hobbit-sized me picked up The Two Towers and read perhaps three pages before putting it down. I was confused and bored and the next movie was scheduled for next year and I could wait. To put that into better perspective: I was twelve.
And in truth, I’m glad I waited until I was older to read these novels. I think I appreciate them more now as an adult than if I had been some preteen with a small vocabulary. As an adult, I can look at my library of books and the recent history of fiction and see all of the inspiration and homage. It’s magical.
But, let’s start at the beginning. The Lord of the Rings was written as one book, a sequel to The Hobbit. Publishing politics split it into the three novels we have now, but the fact that it was written as one large novel actually explains much about the pacing of all three novels.
The Fellowship of the Ring is really an odd book with an odd pacing. It starts off slow and charming, and it remains slow and charming for about three hundred pages. I believe it was around the middle of the book that Frodo, Samwise, Merry, and Pippin officially made it out of the Shire. I enjoyed their hike to be sure, but knowing the battle at Moria was in my future, I was quite antsy for them to hurry up!
But in a solid brick of a novel? Well, a longer beginning that relied on charm makes more sense there.
Likewise, The Two Towers is almost nothing but action, and that novel flew by in what can only be described as bliss. It ended in a cliffhanger with no real resolution though, and that felt strange. All of the build up was in the first book while all of the payoff is in the third. The Two Towers is stuck as a bridge in the middle, but it is a most entertaining bridge.
The Return of the King was fun and a great send off to a great forcefully-made trilogy, but it wasn’t as fun as the first two. I recently finished it yet I’m finding it to be the least memorable of the three. The battles were there, and they were important, but The Return of the King focused a bit more on the politics of Middle Earth and Aragorn becoming king, and the battles weren’t as fun to read. Nothing in the third novel could top the battle at Helm’s Deep, which was pure joy in its finest form.
That being said, it was a great novel.
During my college days, which really weren’t all that long ago in retrospect, I took a class on C.S. Lewis. As it turns out, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien were friends and wrote together. They looked at the fiction of their current day and said, “There aren’t enough books that we like, so let us write what we enjoy!”
Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Tolkien wrote The Hobbit.
As both a reader and writer of novels, I love the sentiment behind that. The Narnia Chronicle is a great series as is the Epic of the Ring, and going through them, I can tell that they were written by those with a passion for stories. There’s a simple ecstasy in these books, the kind that speaks of creation and love and so much more. It’s the same feeling I get when I read a Stephen King book. You can tell these authors are writing for the love of the craft.
Reading The Lord of the Rings, I can picture Tolkien and Lewis talking:
“Lewis, I love you like a brother, truly, but you cannot have talking animals, a Jesus-lion, and Santa Clause in one book. That is simply absurd.”
“Absurd? You’re talking to me of absurd? Tell me Tolkien, you have magical rings, talking eagles, and elves mixed in with your dwarves! And let us not forget all of the songs, which were silly and seem to show up every other page. Yet I am absurd? Truly?”
And then they would look each other in the eyes, share a laugh, a pipe, and probably a glass of whiskey or brandy before returning to the work they loved.
The Lord of the Rings is a labor of love, and it is a labor that has inspired many more. Normally I frown on these kinds of hyperbolic statements, but: The Lord of the Rings has influenced every fantasy book after it in some regard. It is the defining book in the High Fantasy genre, even if it isn’t the first, but that hasn’t stopped Heroic Fantasy and even Low Fantasy from taking inspiration from it.
I love fantasy novels, even if some of the ones I own are perhaps a bit trashy, but I can see the influences. Every one of these authors has looked to the books they read as a child or young adult and went, “I want to do this too.”
I’ll even lump myself into the same category.
My favorite novels are The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. In the forward of The Gunslinger, Stephen King says he set out to do his own version of The Lord of the Rings. He put High Fantasy into a western setting, but the sentiment is there. The Dark Tower is Roland’s One Ring.
One of my favorite authors is R.A. Salvatore, who writes the Dark Elf Legacy novels. He too has explicitly stated that his love of The Lord of the Rings is what inspired him to write fantasy. Elves, orcs, dwarves, and more magic that one could count? The influence is plain to see.
I abhor Terry Goodkind’s A Wizard’s First Rule, but if that isn’t the epitome of high fantasy then I’m a moron and you should stop reading this right now.
My bookshelf contains a great many Dragonlance novels, and those kender sure remind me of hobbits. I haven’t read those books in many years, but I’m sure there are more obvious influences in them as well. The dragons for one are similar to Smaug in their need to horde treasure and ability to talk. I don’t know if Tolkien invented those tropes, but he popularized them.
The Lord of the Rings isn’t primarily focused on politics on the front, but there’s plenty of it to be had. There are tons of factions with different loves for each other, and Sauramon does the required amount of backstabbing. I find it safe to assume that some of this inspired George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. He took the background of one set of books and made it the foreground of his own.
And don’t even get me started on the lore within Blizzard’s Warcraft games!
Influences needn’t be direct either. It can be as simple as “I read these fantasy books when I was younger and now I want to write a fantasy book.” Literature inspires that, and The Lord of the Rings is Literature.
It’s fun to look at something you love and trace it backwards. In the case of the fantasy genre, it’s not hard to do that: simply read The Lord of the Rings. It starts there. (And then read Beowulf which is what inspired Tolkien.)
I’d like to talk more, but I’m not sure there’s a need. There are little things and there are big things in Tolkien’s masterpiece of fiction worth discussing, but I’m running out of words. Minor gripes and minor praises mean little when the bulk of the work is as profound as it is.
I’ll send you off with this: I’ve experienced many great moments in fiction and entertainment media in this 2013 year, but my favorite has to be when Gandolf stood in front of the Balrog in the mines of Moria and defiantly shouted “You shall not pass!” Just thinking of it gives me chills.